Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Atheism, agnosticism, and degrees of certainty

Friday's post -- about a commentator who claims to be an atheist, and yet states that she would not vote for an atheist -- provoked a lot of thoughtful commentary from my readers.  One email came from a gentleman named John DeLorez, who writes over at The Science of Metaphysical and Occult Philosophy.

John and I have corresponded before, and while (as you might guess from the name of his blog) we disagree in substance more often than we agree, he is a thoughtful and skilled writer and our e-conversations have never failed to get me thinking.  (And you should definitely check out his blog when you have a chance; it's worth a read.)  And regarding Friday's post,  he had (amongst other things) the following to say:
I know that you claim the title of atheist, but based upon your frequent statements similar to the one you made today, "I think that the religious view of the world is unsupported by the available evidence," I view you more of an Agnostic, than an Atheist.  Given proof in a form that you could except you would be willing to at least consider a change in belief.  It has been my experience that a dedicated atheist is unwilling to even consider any view other than their own.
I thought this comment was well-taken, and deserved some consideration not only as a response to John, but also to clarify this point to the rest of my readers, because I think it's a common misunderstanding.

The word agnostic literally means "one who does not know" (from the Greek a- "not" + gnosis "knowledge").  And in the strictest sense of the word, I'm an agnostic about everything.  A skeptic -- and all true scientists should be skeptics -- is never sure.  My training and background in biology focused heavily on genetics, so I consider that to be an area in which I am (to some extent) an expert.  Could my understanding of genetics be substantially wrong?  Of course.  What would it take for me to jettison what I thought to be true about genetics, and adopt a different model?  New, reliable data, from peer-reviewed sources, that lead to the inescapable conclusion that the previous model is incorrect.

So, in that sense, just as I am an agnostic (and not certain) in the realm of science, I am an agnostic (and not an atheist) with regards to the existence of a deity.  However, there is one thing that the previous paragraph ignores, and that is the likelihood that a particular hypothesis, theory, or model is correct.  And that's where the confusion comes in.

To take my previous example, what is the likelihood that our current model of genetics is wrong?  I would place that probability as so close to zero as to make no difference.  Genetics as a theory has been so extensively researched, using so many different modalities, and the mountain of data thus generated has been so thoroughly reviewed and cross-checked, that it is about as rock-solid an edifice as any I can think of.  (And sad to say for the young-earth creationists, but the same is true about the evolutionary model.)  So while a hair-splitter might still say that I am "an agnostic with respect to genetics," I am so close to certainty that one might as well call me certain.

All of this puts me in mind of a very old joke, which will probably only be funny to people who are (like me) old.  In bygone days, a young man was taking a math test, and was using his slide rule to perform calculations.  He was working on a problem that required him to multiply two times three, and he began frantically to work his slide rule.  "Let's see..." he mumbled to himself.  "Two... times three... is...  5.9999... oh, hell, let's just call it 6."

So, anyway, you can see where all of this is headed.  What about the existence of god?  Of course I consider my lack of belief as subject to revision.  If, like Moses, I was fortunate enough to have Yahweh speak to me from a Bush That Burned But Was Not Consumed, I would be forced to reconsider my position.  (And honesty demands that I would have somehow to be certain that there was no other explanation -- such as that I was having a hallucination, or that I was the victim of a prank.)  But assuming that I was reasonably sure that I wasn't delusional, and that no hoaxer had set me up, I would have no other choice but to change my stance.

As is, however, I see no evidence whatsoever that god exists.  If I had to place my degree of confidence in the existence of god, I'd have to put it lower than my degree of confidence in the existence of Bigfoot -- because honestly, there's more credible evidence for Bigfoot, in the form of tracks, sightings, and so on, than there is for god.  (As I've commented before, it seems to me that if a deity exists, wouldn't it result in the universe being left with some discernible, measurable trace of that deity's presence?  If there is such a trace, it's certainly escaped me.)

So, while technically I'm an agnostic, and would cheerfully revise my beliefs (after recovering from my shock and astonishment) should evidence for god appear, I'm close enough to the atheist end of the spectrum that it's easier just to refer to myself as such.  In the same sense that I'm an agnostic in the strict sense with regards to Yahweh, I'm also an agnostic with regards to Thor, Kuan Yin, Zeus, Apollo, and Brahma -- but I don't think that my degree of confidence in any of them is particularly lower than my degree of confidence in Yahweh.  So for all intents and purposes, I'm an atheist.

It's an interesting question to consider, however, and I thank John for bringing it up.  And as I said, you really should check out his blog.  Even the heartiest skeptic needs to have his/her views questioned -- and not infrequently.  Keeps us honest.


  1. When you compare different mythologies, you have to think about what we mean by a 'god'. The notion of a god as creator of the world/universe isn't universal among religions. In a lot of mythologies the creator, if any, is no longer around, having been sacrificed in the formation of the world, or rebelled against by their troublesome kids, and we're just dealing with their descendants/inheritors. Ganesh didn't create the universe. Zeus didn't. Odin didn't. In most religions, 'god' really just means someone apparently magical and very powerful, not necessarily even immortal.
    There might well be entities who've been around the block a few more times than we have and know how to do things we don't (though there's no good evidence that any of them have found us). So miracles don't prove divinity. If we call something a god just because it can ignite a bush and do ventriloquism, we're being credulous natives, like primitive tribes who might worship Europeans because they have airplanes and guns and lots of cool junk.
    Then, just because someone charges in on a beam of light and says "I made all this," why should we believe them? If there's an artist's signature on the universe, we have yet to find it -- anyone could claim it. Actually, I created the universe. Disprove it if you can. And anyone whose self-esteem is so low as to require people to worship them, is particularly suspect.
    I also don't understand the association between deity and moral authority. If the logic is that God makes the rules because He can deal out the rewards and punishments, that's just the "might makes right" doctrine. We've rejected that for human leaders. If someone created the universe, that doesn't rightfully make them our boss, either. Just as one can have a child without being a good parent, one can create a universe without being particularly wise or good or even smart. For all we know, everything we can see was created by the other-dimensional analog of a 13-year-old boy with his first "Create Your Own Universe" kit. Indeed, that might explain a lot. I would really like to emigrate to a universe that's better managed.

  2. Gordon +1
    Tyler +1

    The Big Bang generated the contents of the universe and as such everything within the Universe is comprised of the Big Bang. I.E., the Big Bang is God.

    Cherry pick and God will be whatever your confirmation bias wants.

    The level of assumption necessary for a belief in the gods depicted in the various religions is mountainous. That he/she/it exists in the first place, has sentience, has benevolence, can manifest reality at will, cares about humanity as a whole, cares about individuals and their plight, prefers one group of people, political party, or sports team over another, exacts final judgement after death, transports individual's soul/essence to ethereal realms of good or evil after said judgement... etc.

    It might sound insensitive to say that I find this plethora of assumption to be quite convoluted, but it is no less the truth.